Features February 2018 Issue

Overweight? Here’s Why Those Extra Pounds Are Hard on Your Heart

Itís not about how you look. If your waistline is bigger than it should be, taking action to lose weight could save your life.

If you weigh more than you should, you’re not alone. People everywhere weigh more than they did a decade ago. In fact, the rate of obesity has doubled over the past 30 years.

This may be why heart disease remains the world’s leading killer. Multiple studies have confirmed the connection between obesity and death in men and women alike.

“As your body-mass index (BMI, a measurement of obesity) goes up, your risk of dying increases,” says Cleveland Clinic preventive cardiologist Haitham Ahmed, MD, MPH.

In the Nurses Health Study, the risk of death rose 10 percent in those who moved from a normal BMI to the overweight category. That risk rose by 20-30 percent when they moved into the obese category. In the very obese, the risk of death rose by nearly 100 percent, and cardiac death was four times that of a person with normal BMI.

There Are Exceptions

There is at least one group of patients for whom obesity has not been associated with harm: those with heart failure. Patients with heart failure who are underweight or have a normal BMI may be more likely to die than their obese peers.

While obese men and women who develop heart failure live longer with the disease, they tend to develop heart failure at a younger age and die younger than heart-failure patients of normal weight.

Why Obesity Is Dangerous

Man measuring belly

© Tom Wang | Dreamstime

A manís waist should be less than 40 inches around; a womanís, less than 35 inches. If your waist is larger, you are considered overweight or obese.

Researchers aren’t sure what makes obesity dangerous. They think it’s not the fat itself, but that the fat worsens other risk factors. “In this respect, extra weight doesn’t directly cause heart attacks, but it facilitates other interactions that can,” says Dr. Ahmed. “High cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and smoking cause plaque to build up in the arteries. We think obesity interacts with these other risk factors to make plaque build up faster.”

Four Ways Excess Weight Increases Risk

Extra weight triggers insulin resistance, which creates a dangerous cycle that can spiral out of control. The more fat you have, the more insulin resistant you become. This causes your body to secrete more insulin, which makes you store fat. Then you become more insulin resistant, make more insulin, store more fat, and before you know it, you have metabolic syndrome or diabetes, which nearly triples the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Body fat also affects blood lipid levels. The more you weigh, the higher your LDL and triglyceride levels and the lower your levels of beneficial HDL cholesterol are likely to be.

Blood pressure rises when the heart has to pump harder to deliver blood to a growing network of arteries in a larger body. Over time, the struggling heart muscle becomes thicker, increasing the risk of developing heart failure and arrhythmias.

Additionally, many obese people suffer from sleep apnea, which causes them to stop breathing up to hundreds of times a night. Sleep apnea increases the risk of heart attack or death by 30 percent in only four or five years. People who suffer from sleep apnea tend to feel hungry, gain weight from snacking and have trouble losing weight when they try.

How Much Should You Weigh?

That’s a hard question to answer, since it’s really determined by your height and muscle mass. That’s why BMI was developed. To calculate your BMI, divide your weight in pounds by your height in inches squared and multiply the number by 703. A BMI of 18.5 and 24.9 is considered normal, 25-29.9 is overweight, 30 to 35 is obese and 36 or more is morbidly obese.

Measure Your Waist

There’s an easier way to determine whether you are overweight. Simply take out a tape measure and measure your waist right above the hip bones.

“Fat in the central abdominal area is an additional risk factor for heart disease, as it accelerates atherosclerosis,” says Dr. Ahmed. “If you’re a man with a waist measuring 40 inches or more, or a woman with a waist of 35 inches or more (less, if you are Asian), you are at increased risk for heart disease and ought to talk to your doctor.”†

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